The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro


"Laws are like sausages.  It's better not to see them being made."...  ...Otto von Bismarck.

Commentary of the Day - January 30, 2008: The Irascible Professor Recommends a "No" Vote on Proposition 92.

The Irascible Professor only rarely weighs in on California ballot propositions that would affect education.  Partly this is because we don't want to risk boring the majority of our readers who live outside the Golden State with the dirty little details of how California laws come into existence, and partly to avoid offending readers who don't agree with our recommendations.  Every two years we elect 80 members of the State Assembly to two-year terms, and half of the 40 members of the State Senate to four-year terms.  With term limits, three two-year terms for Assembly members and two four-year terms for State Senate members, we pretty much guarantee that our state legislature always is overrun with newbies who are more or less clueless about the operations of state government.  The only folks who are in Sacramento for the long haul are lobbyists who are employed by special interests of every stripe.  The lobbyists in essence are responsible for much of the legislation that works its way through the legislature.

But if that isn't bad enough, in response to a number of early legislative scandals, the Progressive Movement in California enacted changes to the state constitution in 1911 that allowed for initiatives, referenda, and recalls to take place.  Referenda allow the state's electorate to overturn laws enacted by the legislature and signed by the governor, recalls basically allow the electorate to remove politicians from office before the end of their terms, and initiatives allow the electorate to enact laws and to amend the state constitution at the ballot box.  It's this last provision that causes the most mischief, because it allows special interests with large campaign war chests to push through legislation or constitutional amendments that they never could get through the legislature directly.  These special interests depend on the fact that very few, if any, ordinary citizens actually will read the dense legal language of these propositions, and fewer still will be able to fully understand the implications of the proposed legislation or constitutional amendment.  Instead, the proponents hope that they can convince voters through seemingly endless barrages of often misleading television and radio advertisements to vote for the initiative in question.

Proposition 92 is a good example of a proposed constitutional amendment that sounds fine on the surface, but which poses severe problems for higher education in California when one takes a closer look.  Proposition 92 would establish a new minimum level of funding for California's community colleges, reduce community college fees and limit future fee increases, prevent the state from counting spending on debt service for school bonds toward the fulfillment of minimum funding guarantees for community colleges, change the way the state's community college governing board is chosen, and require any future changes to funding levels and community college governance to be passed by a four-fifths vote of the legislature.

Currently, funding for K-14 education in California -- which includes the community colleges -- is determined by a previously passed constitutional amendment, Proposition 98.  Under Proposition 98, which was passed by the voters in 1988, K-12 education and the community colleges receive the greater of a fixed percentage of state General Fund revenues, or of the amount they received in the prior year adjusted for enrollment and inflation.  The inflation factor is calculated two different ways.  In the first way, the inflation factor is considered to be the state's percentage change in per capita personal income.  In the second way, the inflation factor is calculated to be the annual percentage change in per capita state General Fund revenues plus 0.5%.  The enrollment factor is based on average daily attendance in K-12 schools, but not in community colleges.

If you are still with me on this, you probably are better versed than 99.9% of Californians on school funding in the state!  In any event it takes a combination of budget shortfalls and enrollment declines to lower the amount of money K-14 education receives from the state treasury.

Budget shortfalls happen all to frequently in the Golden State, but until recently K-12 enrollment has always risen, so K-14 education always has gotten more money from the state coffers.  But, it looks like that might change in the near future, and that's the primary impetus behind Proposition 92.  The community colleges want to decouple their funding formula from the K-12 sector.  Under the proposed constitutional amendment, in years that there is a budget shortfall, the guaranteed funding for the community colleges would be based on their previous year's budget plus an inflation factor and on the greater of the annual change in California population of 17- to 21-year-olds or 22- to 25-year olds and a factor related to the unemployment rate.  This new guarantee is not in any way based on actual community college enrollment.  In fact, the new formula establishes a minimum growth factor of 1% even when community college enrollment grows by less than 1% or actually declines.

Proposition 92 also reduces California community college fees from $20 per unit to $15 per unit.  The state Legislative Analyst has estimated that this would cost the community colleges about $71 million in revenue for this academic year.  This would be more than made up for by the new funding guarantee during years when there is a state budget shortfall, but could result in some loss of revenue in years when General Fund revenue grows, but only modestly.  In any case, at $20 per unit California has the lowest community college fees in the country.  In addition, the unit fees are waived for low-income students.

There are a number of problems with Proposition 92 that causes The Irascible Professor to urge a NO vote on it.  First, it's a bad idea to lock funding for any part of government into a constitutional mandate that is impossible to change.  The California legislature has a tough enough time gathering a two-thirds majority to pass the annual state budget.  There is not a snowball's chance in Hell that they ever would come up with a four-fifths majority to change Proposition 92 funding levels.

Second, it's really dumb to tie funding for the community colleges to population increases that frequently don't correlate with enrollment changes in these institutions.  According to the non-partisan California Budget Project, 63% of the time population increases in the selected age groups exceeded the growth of community college enrollment.  Likewise, unemployment rates were poorly correlated with changes in community college enrollments.  But, one thing that the California Budget Project did find is that Proposition 92's growth factor is inflated.  If it had been applied between the 1990-91 academic year and the 2005-06 academic year, the Proposition 92 growth factor would have been 3.1% per year, while the actual growth in full-time equivalent community college enrollment was only 1.3% per year.

Finally, there is no need to lower community college unit fees.  The unit fees are only a small part of the costs involved in community college attendance.  Contrary to what the proponents of the measure argue, it won't make a difference in whether or not a low-income student can attend a community college.

California's community colleges are an important part of our state's system of public higher education.  A large segment of our society depends on these institution both for sophisticated vocational education and for a low-cost start on a four-year college degree.  These institutions need and deserve decent support, but this measure is the wrong way to go about giving them the support they need.

Vote NO on Proposition 92!


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© 2008 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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